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After years of anticipation, the Tesla gigafactory opened just outside of Reno in 2016. In this series, KUNR explores everything from hiring efforts, the evolution of battery technology, infrastructure and workforce challenges for the region, and more. Our reporting on Tesla earned a 2016 regional Edward R. Murrow award for best small market radio news series from the Radio Television Digital News Association.

Tesla's Here, But What About The Workforce?

Julia Ritchey

One of the biggest promises Tesla has made to Nevada is its commitment to hire thousands of people for well-paid jobs at the gigafactory. In the latest installment of our series Behind the Battery Boom, reporter Amy Westervelt looks at how the company will deliver on that promise in the face of a looming labor shortage.

I’m standing in what will soon be the new advanced manufacturing lab at Truckee Meadows Community College. Jim New, the school’s dean of technical sciences, is showing me around.

“This room right here will be one of the labs for advanced manufacturing," he says. "The room that we have right now – that we’ll go in – is about two thirds the size of this room.”

New says TMCC is doubling the size of its Applied Technology Center. That’s at least partly due to the popularity of its advanced manufacturing courses, which aim to prepare local students to grab jobs with Tesla, Panasonic, and other companies setting up shop.

“We’ve been working with Tesla almost immediately after they made their announcement that they were coming to northern Nevada,” he says.

That announcement came back in 2014, when Governor Brian Sandoval said this of the Tesla gigafactory:

“When completed, it will employ six thousand five hundred people on site with an average wage in excess of $25 an hour. Talk to those people who are gonna get those jobs [applause]. These are new jobs, in Nevada, for Nevadans.”

For Mike Kazmierski, executive director of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada – EDAWN – that was bittersweet news. He sees it as his job to make sure that there’s enough skilled labor in the region not just for Tesla, but for other companies, too.

“The concern is not about Tesla. The concern is about the workforce needs of the region because the Tesla name and the Tesla opportunity will pull from our existing employers a lot of talent. They’re gonna be very concerned that they’re losing employees, and what are we doing to help them?”

Over at TMCC, the school has finally caught up with its wait list of 400 students for the advanced manufacturing program. Instructor Andy Daniels says that there are a lot of manufacturing jobs in the region, but the pull of Tesla is strong.

“Most of our students are people who are either looking for a change in field, or they heard about Tesla and think ‘Hey, I want to work there and this is the quickest way to do that,’" he says. "A lot of them are people who are already highly trained but are just lacking a skill in one particular area.”

Kazmierski, with EDAWN, says the key to building up the talent pipeline for companies throughout the region is not just to create programs at local universities and community colleges, but also to reintroduce vocational training in high schools. He says K through 12 is a big focus right now.

“These are great opportunities, the chance to get out and with little more than high school and some certifications you could walk into a sixty to eighty thousand dollar a year job,” he says.

To that end, Jim New at TMCC says the college is working with local high schools to provide a vocational training program. “We saw a real decline in vocational programs at the high schools starting about 11 years ago. The tragedy in that is these are expensive programs to start up, so when a high school loses a program, it’s nearly impossible for them to start a new program.”

Tesla is on the hook to hire at least half of its employees from Nevada, but the company has already caught some flack for hiring out-of-state construction workers. Russell James, a union spokesperson, protested outside the gigafactory earlier this year.

“We think it’s a raw deal for Nevada’s workers. We think this is corporate welfare at its worst. There are Nevada workers who are available to do these jobs. They are choosing to bring in workers from out of state so they can pay them less.”

Tesla spokespeople said it was a subcontractor –Brycon Construction—that was hiring out of state. Despite its commitment to local hiring, and work with local schools and labor groups, Tesla may still have to hire transplants. Kazmierski says that’s always been part of the plan.

“We’re working on developing a whole program to attract talent, in fact we already started some of that by advertising in Sacramento because they’re so close," he says. "But we’re looking at northern and southern California, we’re looking at Vegas, we’re looking at municipalities where the unemployment rate is high -- Houston would be a good example -- and saying ‘Hey if you want a great job in a great place, look at Reno.’”

Tesla is expected to announce several more jobs in the fall, and Panasonic is hosting a job fair this month, where it will be looking to hire new gigafactory employees. 

Amy Westervelt is a former contributor at KUNR Public Radio.
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